Exit Stage Right

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This article originally appeared in Slate.


Scott Walker is the only governor to survive a recall but the first sitting governor who could not survive Donald Trump. The Wisconsin governor dropped out of the 2016 presidential race on Monday, marking one of the fastest flameouts in recent political memory. It was only in July that he announced he was running. He was at the top of Iowa polls, a climb he had been on since his first strong showing in January at Rep. Steve King's GOP cattle call.

Walker wasn't just a survivor. He was proof of a theory--that a candidate who did what conservatives wanted would be rewarded for his constancy. His message was simple: Others talk; I have delivered. After a president elected with no executive experience and no big legislation to his name, a candidate who was ideologically solid and who had results should have lasted longer.

Walker announced with fanfare and high expectations back when Trump was being accused of hiring actors to attend his announcement. Now Trump gets vast crowds. Better to start as a longshot and get hot, which is what Trump has done. Walker got hot too fast, say Republican strategists and donors connected to the campaign. Walker built up a big staff, raised expectations, and just couldn't maintain the money or the excitement. The real reason for the race ending - at least this early - was fiscal mismanagement by the campaign," said one source close to the campaign. "They burned through cash needlessly - expect the FEC report to be ugly." The battle against unions sounded more exciting before Trump was giving kids helicopter rides. Walker could not adapt to seize the conversation.

The departure from the race was a shock to those in the donor community who were expecting Walker to retool after the last debate. It was clear he was in trouble, and his debate performance on CNN Wednesday night was lackluster. He had tried to pull out the jumper cables by attacking Trump--both in the debate and on the conservative circuit--but it didn't win him any notices.

While Walker was falling in the polls, rumors started to swirl about a staff shakeup. Some donors wanted to see campaign manager Rick Wiley moved out of the job. Others weren't looking for a head but a new strategy. That strategy was put forward after the debate last week. The idea was to focus on Iowa, where Walker had an organization in 99 counties and let the super PAC provide air cover. The super PAC had already booked ads for South Carolina and Iowa. "As of this morning we thought that was still the plan," says a member of Walker's donor community.*

Walker's collapse suggests that while this was supposed to be the super PAC election where candidates could stay alive for a long time, the super PAC can't save you if you can't raise the more useful campaign money yourself. Walker faced the truly embarrassing possibility of being locked out of the next debate because he had sunk so low in the polls. With the prospects so dim, the money was just drying up. Unlike his favorite anecdote about buying low-cost goods with coupons at Kohl's, campaigns can't be run by pinching pennies.

*Correction, Sept. 21, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that Walker's campaign bought ads in South Carolina and Iowa. His super PAC did.